The message of Ferguson

Published 4:10 pm Wednesday, November 26, 2014

“..a riot is the language of the unheard.”

  Martin Luther King Jr.

The nation has been waiting months in the Ferguson, Mo., case — not even for a verdict, but just for a decision on whether a police officer would be charged in the killing of an unarmed teenager.

Officers use deadly force hundreds of times a year, but this case has drawn extraordinary attention because the officer was white and the young man was black. That spark was all it took to set off fiery protests in Ferguson when the shooting happened in August and again Monday night when the nation learned the officer would not be indicted.

The killing underscored feelings of distrust that simmer below the surface in communities across America. Months before Michael Brown was shot down in Ferguson, residents of Salisbury’s predominantly black West End complained to city officials that their neighborhood was not getting enough police protection and that the city is deaf to their concerns. Though the city did respond and is still responding, Ferguson became part of the backdrop for that discussion and other conversations about race across the country. 

If nothing else, Michael Brown’s death has raised awareness of the disproportionate number of black men who die in encounters with law enforcement. “Young black men are 21 times as likely as their white peers to be killed by police,” the journalism site ProPublica reported after studying FBI data. Use of deadly force can be justified, but the numbers show an undeniable and disturbing trend. What is behind it?

That’s something this country and this community need to discuss more often and more openly. If, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “a riot is the language of the unheard,” more listening is in order. Residents involved in improving the West End initiated such a conversation earlier this year, talking not only to officials but also to each other at public forums about how to improve their neighborhood for their and their children’s safety. The talk was less about injustice than lack of resources, though some would say that’s an injustice too. The same conversation could be held in many more neighborhoods across Rowan.

Did the grand jury make the right decision? It’s impossible to know without reviewing all the information presented. Meanwhile, people near and far will continue to follow the fallout from Ferguson. Officer Darren Wilson could still face civil rights charges or a wrongful death lawsuit.

And activists are calling for a “Michael Brown law” requiring all police officers to wear body video cameras — a step toward keeping officers, suspects and witnesses accountable. That kind of evidence is sorely needed.